This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
As the year turns, what lies ahead? For Israel-Palestine, what’s in store seems more of the same. A dismal prospect all around.
My thinking of the new year was focused by a recent email I received. Interested researchers were looking for an essay I published thirty years ago in this new year. Time passes quickly. Are my words still relevant?
My essay was written at the height of the Palestinian uprising in 1988. I had just published Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation in 1987, months before the Uprising began. My essay was an update, one of many to come in the years ahead.
Here’s how I began:
Some years ago, in an essay outlining Christian complicity in the Jewish Holocaust and the future of Christianity in light of that complicity, the German Catholic theologian, Johannes Baptist Metz wrote: “We Christians can never again go back behind Auschwitz; to go beyond Auschwitz, if we see clearly, is impossible for us by ourselves. It is possible only together with the victims of Auschwitz.” When first read, this statement strikes one by its boldness, and later, by its depth. For Metz, the Jewish victims of Christian triumphalism and power stand before the Christian community, challenging the past but also serving as the key to the future. Of course, Christians and Jews have traveled together on a tortuous and bloody road for almost two millennia before the Holocaust. The present calls for a radically new way of journeying together, one of trust and ultimately of embrace.
Over the past months, as the twenty year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has erupted into a veritable civil war, Metz’s statement has assumed a new relevance in a different context. For on the other side of power, the Jewish people have assumed a new and unaccustomed role in relation to the Palestinian people: that of oppressors. As some Christians continue to have difficulty in admitting their complicity in the suffering of Jews, the Jewish people find it almost impossible to admit to their own complicity in the suppression of the Palestinian people. Though Jewish empowerment, mandated by the suffering of the Holocaust, should be affirmed as a good, the present impasse in Israel and Palestine cannot be addressed outside the most obvious, to some the more contradictory of options: solidarity with the Palestinian people. To paraphrase Metz’s statement, the challenge might be stated thus: “We Jews can never go back behind empowerment: to go beyond empowerment, if we see clearly, is impossible for us by ourselves. It is only possible with the victims of our empowerment.”
Do these words resonate as 2016 dawns? In a similar, though more informed and strident language, echoes of these words are heard in the work of Max Blumenthal and Keith Feldman. Though the connections through time are important, the distance between then and now is alarming.
Blumenthal and Feldman know so much more than I did. Their current work is a knowledge curve for us all. But the stridency of Israel and the prospects for Palestinians is much further away than those Uprising years when I, along with many others, found our voice.
Perhaps, since those Uprising years may have been illusory in their promise. Was I – were we – naive?
Today, it is more difficult to envision Jews and Palestinians working toward a common future, at least a future experienced in a politically viable Israel-Palestine. The fault lines are exposed. The abyss–unlikely to be bridged soon– is clearly in view.
Or is the hope of my words thirty years ago, simply delayed, waiting to return in the form we hoped for then or in another form we have not, as yet, imagined?
In the year ahead, Jewish and Palestinian dissent will continue and intensify. The situation on the ground will deteriorate further. There will be more words of hope and despair, mingled with the blood of the innocent. As the prospects for Palestinians decline, at least among the majority of Jews, the ethical impulse of Jewish history will likewise diminish.
Will this dual diminishment become the rallying call for a just peace in an Israel-Palestine that has suffered so much and is destined to suffer so much more?
Thirty years ago I called for a solidarity with the Palestinian people. That call is more distant and more relevant today.